Monday, March 21, 2011

Libya, Obama, and the Just War Theory

cross-posted from Dagblog

Barack Obama's decision to join the attack on Libya is very much of a piece with his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. There are various grounds on which a reasonable person could object to the Libya strikes (diplomatic reasons, military reasons, pragmatic reasons, reasons of consistency, even Constitutional reasons). But the decision absolutely fits within a coherent and very traditional moral philosophy. Obama walked through most of the key points of that position in his Nobel Prize speech, with one important omission. That omission is perhaps the key to understanding his conduct as a war leader.

The "just war" position is a theoretical framework dating back to the Roman Empire and elaborated by early Christian thinkers, based on the "necessary evil" or "lesser evil" principle. If choosing the lesser evil sounds like a bad thing to you, let me propose that choosing the greater evil is worse, and that choosing a randomly selected evil is an abdication of morality. (There are those who feel that such an abdication relieves them of responsibility for whatever consequences follow, because they did not positively assent to such consequences. I could not disagree more.) Most Western medicine works on the lesser evil principle: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments all cause you real harm in the best-case scenario and kill you in the worst; they are only worthwhile if they eliminate, or offer a reasonable hope of eliminating, a much worse danger to your health. On the same reasoning, just war views violence as acceptable, under sometimes perhaps obligatory, in order to prevent much worse violence. If someone walks into a workplace with an automatic weapon, a police officer is allowed to shoot that person, and should. If there were a way to disarm the shooter non-violently, that would be preferable, but if there is not, and often there is not, it is better for the shooter to be killed than for many other people to be killed.

The just-war idea should not be confused with the idea of a holy war, which suggests that violence can be redeemed, or even redemptive, if done in the service of one's god or of some other "transcendent" or "noble" belief. Violence is never imagined as a good in itself; it can only ever be an attempt to lessen the overall violence. Neither does just-war theory suggest that violence can be justified by the wickedness of one's opponents. No one can be killed because they are bad people who deserve it. They might justifiably be killed as a last resort attempt to prevent them from doing a very, very bad thing. Muammar Qaddafi was an evil person last year, but that was not a justification for murdering him. He is currently killing and poised to kill many, many people, and if killing him would prevent that it would be extremely defensible from the just-war position. On the other hand, if Qaddafi managed to kill hundreds of thousands of his countrymen and then flee to Geneva and live peacefully, there would no longer be a necessary-evil justification for killing him. (Obviously, there would be reasons to try him, and there might even be coherent moral reasons proposed for executing him, but those are not lesser-evil reasons, because Qaddafi would no longer be a threat to others' lives.)

The Crusades were never imagined or seriously defended as just wars. They were Holy Wars. They were justified not as attempts to prevent worse evils, but as tributes to the glory of God. (Also, they were imagined as good things because Muslims were infidels and therefore The Bad Guys.) These two basic Christian conceptions of war, the Just War and the Crusade, have coexisted in Christian thought for the last thousand years, and occasionally borrowed each other's favorite metaphors, but they are profoundly different. In a crusade model, you commit acts of terrible bloodshed and tell yourself that they are acts of virtue, because your enemies are godless and because you have such good values. In a just war model, you remember that there's no such thing as a good war. There are only bad wars and even worse wars, and the only reason to fight a bad one is to stave off a worse one. War is like amputating a limb to save a patient's life: something to be done in extremis, when other options are gone.

George W. Bush is a Crusader, deep in his bones. His Iraq war flunks every test of a just war, six ways to Sunday. Bush operates out of the Crusade model where violence is absolved and redeemed by its lofty spiritual purpose. Barack Obama operates, mostly, from a Just War position, which is aimed at achieving as much good as practically possible and salvaging what can be salvaged from terrible situations. His Nobel acceptance speech walks through most of the basic conditions of the Just War theory, which follow logically from the underlying "necessary evil" principle.

The first condition of a just war is the magnitude of the evil being prevented. If you're going to fight a war, costing tens and potentially hundreds of thousands of lives, as the lesser evil, the threat of a greater evil has to be pretty huge. You don't amputate a broken arm; you only amputate an arm that will cost the patient his or her life. You don't attack another country over any bad act they've committed; it has to be an attempt to prevent massive bloodshed. There's a traditional self-defense clause here (you can fight an invading army rather than permitting them to kill your fellow citizens), but for third-party interventions there should be a reasonable certainty that many, many, many lives will be lost if you do not intervene. Clinton's interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo followed basically just-war rationales; they were fought to prevent large-scale deaths of civilians in "ethnic cleansing."

In the Libya case, it's very clear that Qaddafi intends to massacre large numbers of civilians for resisting his rule. That's a very reasonable justification for the rebels' armed resistance to him, and by extension for assisting those rebels.

The second condition is that the violence used be proportionate. You don't stop bloodshed by committing vastly more bloodshed. If they only way you can prevent the deaths of thousands of innocents is killing millions of innocents, there's really no way to say that you're choosing the lesser evil. You can't destroy the village in order to save it. You might be able to destroy a few houses in order to save it, but if you're going to do more damage than you prevent, you've lost your way. A related concept should be that the military conduct must discriminate between the enemy soldiers and the civilians who the war is meant to protect. A just war can only be just if it kills as few civilians as possible. Disproportionate and indiscriminate violence takes away any rationalization for a just war. There is no moral point to killing a bunch of unarmed civilians. You can't say they're better off. You can't justify killing them as an attempt to minimize bloodshed.

How Obama passes this test in Libya will be seen on the field, and it can be murky. But leveling Tripoli would be completely unjustifiable. And the American habit of using guided ordinance shows a simultaneous embrace of the "proportionate and discriminate" principle and failure to execute it. It's true that many of our weapons can be guided fairly precisely, but our dependence upon air power, cruise missiles, and predator drones also leads to inevitable civilian casualties.

Perhaps most importantly, a just war is a last resort. It's not okay to kill a lot of people because you're preventing even more death and violence. It's only acceptable to kill a lot of people because it is the only possible way to prevent even more death and violence. If you have another option for averting the violence, you should take it. You must take it.

Part of the last resort condition of imminence. War can only be justified if there is genuinely no time for any other kind of interference. You can't attack a country to stop them from massacring an ethnic minority someday. You can only attack a country to stop a massacre that's already getting underway. This is also logical ... the longer the time scale, the more chances you have to prevent the violence by peaceful means. This is why a police officer is authorized to kill a person who is committing a crime, and not someone who is merely likely to commit a felony someday. It's also why the "weapons of mass destruction" argument for the Iraq war, even if the weapons program had been underway, was not legitimate in just-war theory; even if Saddam Hussein had a weapons program, it was very clear that he was nowhere near completing, say, an atomic bomb, and therefore there were many different options for forestalling and preventing any such bomb. You don't get to bomb a country because you don't have the patience for sanctions and inspections. You only have a legitimate cause to bomb when it is genuinely now or never.

Whatever else is happening in Libya, it's happening in real time, and any intervention had to be timely. The regime is killing people right now. You can't save those people with six months of patient diplomacy; they will be dead by then.

The final major condition for a just war is realistic likelihood of success. This sounds like a practical rather than a moral reason, but we are discussing practical morality. If we're going to commit one evil to avert a greater evil, we need to have a realistic chance of actually averting that greater evil. And the more force we use, the better hope we need to have that it will pay off.

This is the condition that Barack Obama did not mention at the Nobel ceremony, and the one he apparently doesn't like to talk about. If you are going to fight a war to prevent even greater violence, you need to be able to prevent that violence.

Even the most scrupulous just war means committing a guaranteed evil, the violence that you will commit, for a chance of averting a larger one. Success in war can only ever be a probability, not a certainty, and if you fail to avert the greater evil you set out to fight, you will have only added more bodies to the pile. So you need to be damned sure of your chances.

If this sounds abstract, let me phrase it as a question: Why didn't Luxembourg try to stop Hitler? The answer is obvious: they could not. If they had attacked the German army in 1939, they would have been destroyed and the Germans would have gone right back to their destruction. They would not have lessened the evil that the Germans were doing; they would have added to it.

It is flatly immoral, in the just-war framework, to attack without any hope of success. Only success, or a good-faith expectation of success, can justify a war fought on the grounds that it is the lesser evil. In the same way, a just war must be planned in a way that permits success. If you send an expeditionary force to stop a genocide in a foreign country, but you send only a handful of troops, you are no longer fighting a just war. You're simply killing more people. And if the goal of your war is fundamentally unachievable, then there is no way to justify it. George H. W. Bush's intervention in Somalia was purely humanitarian and generous; the goal of distributing food and aid to the starving is fundamentally just. But there quickly turned out to be no way to achieve that honorable goal in that place by force of arms. And just wars are not about good intentions. They are about relieving suffering and deterring bloodshed.

Obama does not wish to discuss the expectation of success condition, because he is bogged down in two wars where success can no longer be achieved. Iraq is obviously something he has been saddled with, and it's clear to the whole world why he's there; he's there because his troops are hard to extricate. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a war that Obama explicitly defends as a just war, fought for an appropriate cause. And one could certainly argue that the initial invasion of Afghanistan was a perfectly orthodox just war: the United States was responding to an actual threat to its citizens' safety, and the goals of driving al-Qaeda out of Iraq and disrupting their terrorist operations were eminently feasible. But there are no longer any obviously feasible goals in Afghanistan. What we hope to achieve by remaining, or reasonably can believe we might achieve by remaining, has become a mystery. Obama can't justify the continuation of his "good war" in the just-war framework, and he knows it. So he doesn't try.

The question is not whether we should use our military to protect Libyan civilians from wholesale murder. I think that goal, taken just on its own terms, is unimpeachable. The question, which has yet to be answered, is whether our military power can protect those civilians from violence. That's the most important question of all.

No comments: